Upstream vs. Downstream


Resource extraction across the world is getting more and more intensive. Material flows (both of virgin and used materials) are getting skewed.

Some of the important factors responsible for the shift are market globalization, presence of perverse subsidies (i.e. unrealistic resource pricing) and unevenness in
environmental governance.

These changes have a major significance for the economy and more so for the very resource security of this planet. There is no doubt that we need to think of waste and
resources at the same time as it is followed in a circular economy.



One of the most effective UPSTREAM strategies to address this increasing threat to resources is to REDUCE consumption and redesign the products we make and the services we offer.

The first strategy requires change in the behavioural patterns or the way we live. Given the rising rate of urbanization, the increasingly prosperous middle class (especially in Asia) and the promotion of consumerism through media, it is
extremely difficult to expect this change will ever happen! If you say no to a product because you feel there is no need, someone will simply dump the product on you (as a free trial or as a friendly gift) to trap you or enslave you!!

The second UPSTREAM strategy of REDESIGN requires innovation, risk appetite and top management commitment – and this cannot be achieved overnight.

Here, companies need to exhibit outof-the-box thinking to find ways to reduce material and energy intensity and increase recycled content in their products. Products need to be redesigned to reduce/eliminate hazardous substances, increase
recyclability (and improve safety during recycling) and make remanufacturing possible with most of the components getting reused.

Here, we are essentially talking about smart manufacturing in the true sense. All this should lead to reduction in the wastes we produce and reduce consumption of our
limited resources.

Due to increasing consumption and years of inefficiencies in manufacturing practices, however, waste volumes across the world have been on a steep rise. This has led to a
sunrise in the global waste management industry. This industry is thriving on the DOWNSTREAM strategies of waste RECYCLING & REUSE – extracting metals, biosolids, Refuse or Solid Derived Fuels, bio-gas, syngas, heat, electricity, engineered materials etc. from and reversing material flows and thereby reducing the consumption of virgin resources. The waste industry today supports significant employment – both in formal and informal sectors. Millions of poor people in the world’s largest cities earn their livelihood because waste is around.

Therefore the waste industry wants more waste to be produced– so that it can grow and survive. REDUCE at UPSTREAM can affect the DOWNSTREAM opportunities of

I remember the CEO of a waste-toenergy plant who used to hate bans on plastics as they would reduce the calorific value of waste. A Common Effluent Treatment Plant (CETP) company I know, discouraged members of the CETP to reduce the effluent volumes by specifying in the contract a guarantee for effluent supply. So has been the case in many Public Private Partnership contracts (PPP) for managing Municipal Solid
Waste wherein waste supply guarantee is an essential precondition. ‘Don’t you ever REDUCE waste’, the PPP partner warns.

There are many such examples of conflicting interests between UPSTREAM and DOWNSTREAM resource and waste management. There is no doubt, it defeats

I like the picture below that shows priority among REDUCE, REUSE and RECYCLE.


Source –

So REDUCE should always be the first priority, followed by REUSE and RECYCLING.

Note that the players in the REDUCE and REUSE & RECYCLE space are generally different. In REDUCE, top management, product designers and consumers play a dominant role whereas in REUSE & RECYCLE, waste pickers, community and waste
processing specialists have a greater interest.

What we need is an integrated approach. Bringing these stakeholders together to ensure an integrated waste & resource thinking is very important. We don’t see that
happening. Very rarely do product designers and waste processors talk. Products when redesigned cleverly can not only REDUCE material and energy intensity or eliminate
hazardous substances but also increase potential REUSE and provide more opportunities for RECYCLING. A systems thinking is necessary. And we need examples that show possibilities and benefits of such integration.

I would love to conduct workshops to bring these stakeholders together and explore how to resolve the apparent conflicts between UPSTREAM and DOWNSTREAM. These workshops will perhaps help in better communication between the stakeholders and lead to more partnerships and motivational examples to share. Let UPSTREAM meet DOWNSTREAM.


(cover image sourced from


  1. Excellent blog, Dr Modak ! Is it possible to find the quantity of water extracted for use, like the commodities shown in the figure linked to the blog?

    Telephone: 011-65024742; Mobile 9810823131

    1. Yes, such data is available. In fact, for one of my clients, we developed at EMC a Water Stress map of India at Tehsil level using attributes of water availability, water extracted, water quality and uncertainty due to climate change. The situation is rather gloomy.


  2. Very important ideas from a holistic perspective. When working with “waste-to-energy” assessments, I have always wondered about the policies promoting or even mandating a certain (increasing) amount of energy being produced from waste. So, we should be actually promoting waste generation to ensure the success of such policies. Would that be a vicious cycle then? How do we address that?

  3. Wonderful article highlighting the “conflict” that inherently exists. Finally, it is greed that wins. Those interested further may wish to have a look at the book titled, :The Waste Makers” written by Vance Packard. It addresses the issues of the negative effects of consumerism, materialism and waste.

  4. Dear Zarasp.

    Thanks for citing Packard’s book. This book was written as early as in 1960 and has been one of the best sellers!

    In this book Packard probed the increasing commercialization of American life.and consumption for the sake of supporting the economy. In the late 1950s, in the United States, it appeared that a ‘saturation point’ is reached having everything people needed. This was expected to lead to a serious sales slump. Indeed, a recession occurred and the public was bombarded with slogans ‘Buy now” – prompted, not by the advertising industry but by the Government. President Eisenhower himself provided the encouragement and set the theme that we must consume for the sake of the economy. (Ref book review by Paul Rondell –

    Packard examines in this book the development of planned obsolescence as considered essential for growth. For instance, traditionally furniture was purchased for quality and durability. The author shows how attitudes were manipulated to condition people to desire periodic re-decorating.. Today, we switch to new mobile phones like changing underwears and shift to new models of automobiles driven by the status and to take depreciation benefits.

    For more recent work on sustainable consumption and production related policies, I would recommend


  5. Every word of your blog is a bitter truth.

    But human nature being basically selfish ,we will all continue to look the other way and ignore till it actually bites us hard.

    Tireless efforts are required from people like you to spread awareness on the issue which you have volunteered to do.

    Other way to realize the seriousness of the issue would be something catastrophic happens(remember plague in Surat in 1990’s-now it is “Khubsoorat”) which I hope not.

    But sometimes, stunning works.

  6. Excellent article sir!

    Better resource management can be a precursor to stunning innovations for many organizations. Companies like PUMA, Ford etc. have achieved it by identifying the resource leakage in their supply chain eventually leading to product and process innovation. The case in hand is that of “Incycle”, a compostable sneaker by PUMA which also improved their sales figure and “soy-based polyurethane seats” by Ford which improved their top-line.

    It is high time that organizations start thinking about “triple bottom-line”.

  7. Very relevant and interesting thoughts, Dr. Modak.

    I would also like to add one more item preceding the 3Rs, and that is ‘Avoid’. More than often all of us accumulate things that may not be truly needed.
    Perhaps Sustainability finally is all about the Gandhian way of being ‘frugal’ in our lives !

    Came across an interesting concept of ‘Planned and Perceived Obsolescence’ on Annie Leonard’s blog ( The former is by industrial product designers whereas the latter is by marketeers and advertisers. Together they result in making people buy more and more.

    Ironically, to resolve the recent financial crisis, increasing consumption seemed to be the only way !

    I wonder whether WEEE in the EU has influenced electronic product manufacturers in making their product designs more recycle-friendly! Logically it should..

    I guess citizens need to play increasingly more engaging role in bring the Upstream and Downstream together !!

  8. Dear Prasad, The blog is highly informative and useful to all. But I think there’re more fundamental issues that form the backbone of this problem. I often used to talk about this in my courses, but was never able to convince the students. In this technology dominated society, the definitions of advancement, development and quality of life etc. have become lopsided and anti ecological. For every new product that’s developed the negative applications/impacts are becoming more serious than the positive ones. I feel that the need today is to have a simple life style close to the nature, even if it means giving up some comfort!!!!!Well, I’ve already been called all kinds of names for my beliefs but prefer to hold on to them as I’m getting more and more convincing proofs for it.

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